The mainstream media is, for most people, the primary source of news. So when that same media repeatedly fails to write accurately and responsibly about herbal medicines, many consumers understandably become confused and worried about the products they?re purchasing.
Invariably, customers will come to retailers with their concerns about the latest media reports on herb safety and efficacy. By knowing what reports are currently in vogue in the media—and how to guide the consumer toward more accurate information—retailers can have a positive impact on customer education and help to combat some of the inaccuracies about herbal products that the mainstream media perpetuates.
What?s the best way to respond to customer concerns and questions? ?To some degree, the response is dependent on how knowledgeable the retailer is,? says Michael McGuffin, president of the American Herbal Products Association, based in Silver Spring, Md. Using the May 2004 Consumer Reports cover article on herbal supplements as an example, McGuffin says: ?For instance, if a customer has read a report about how incredibly dangerous germander or aristolochic acid or comfrey is, you can say, ?No one sells those, because they?re illegal for sale in the United States.? If a retailer is well informed, he can give the consumer direct information that shows the media got it wrong.?
Even when the media gets it partially right, reports often focus on the bad news and ignore the good. As an example, Mark Blumenthal, executive director of the American Botanical Council, based in Austin, Texas, points to the news frenzy surrounding a 2002 study that showed ginkgo did not lead to significant improvement in mental function and short-term memory in healthy adults over 65. ?This study was all over the place on all three major networks because JAMA [Journal of the American Medical Association] made this a big-time news release: Forget about the ginkgo, ginkgo doesn?t work. JAMA made it sound like this was the best study ever done and invalidated all previous research,? Blumenthal says. But, in fact, ginkgo was found to be effective in 33 other studies when used by cognitively impaired adults or those with senile dementia. ?We put out a press release,? Blumenthal says, ?but nobody picked it up, because negative news sells.?
Consumers may also have safety questions based on the length of usage suggested for a supplement in the The Complete German Commission E Monographs, Blumenthal says. For example, Commission E suggests using echinacea for no more than 8 weeks and black cohosh for no more than 6 months. This is not due to the herb?s inherent safety, but rather the need for consumers to follow up their self-care with a professional assessment. In the case of echinacea, the approved use in Germany is for fighting upper respiratory infections due to cold and flu. ?If you cannot treat such an infection with echinacea in eight weeks, clearly your condition is either misdiagnosed or more serious than you thought,? Blumenthal says. ?So this suggestion ultimately has to do with your safety, not echinacea?s safety.?
Given the number of skewed and downright inaccurate news reports on herbs, retailers need to know where to go for information that can both allay consumer concerns and paint a more accurate picture of herbal supplements? long track record of safety. One idea is to join a trade association, such as the American Herbal Products Association, the American Botanical Council or the National Nutritional Foods Association, since these associations often have additional information on their Web sites that can only be accessed by members. And when a negative story breaks, members are often given instant information on the story.
?When stories like the one found in the May Consumer Reports come out, we?ve sent notifications to our members, directing them to our site and giving them a way to respond,? says David Seckman, president of the NNFA, based in Washington, D.C.
He also suggests that both retailers and consumers look at information on the NNFA site pertaining to the overall safety of herbal supplements. ?There?s so much misinformation on how safe supplements are,? Seckman says. ?We compare herbal supplements to food-borne illnesses, over-the-counter products and prescription medicines to demonstrate their safety record, by compiling statistics on what the actual numbers [of illnesses or deaths linked to each category] are.?
McGuffin especially recommends the Web site of the Dietary Supplement Education Alliance, www.supplementinfo.org. DSEA is a nonprofit group founded by industry members—including two trade associations, AHPA and NNFA, and two publishers, New Hope Natural Media and Virgo Publishing—to give consumers accurate scientific information about herb safety and efficacy.
?The data are all from Intra Medicine, and their primary customers are doctors, so they don?t mess around,? McGuffin says. ?It?s unbiased, well-researched and strait-laced information.?
It?s also key to point out to customers why so many media reports either get it wrong or paint only half the picture. ?Keep in mind, these articles are not written by experts, but by journalists,? McGuffin says. ?It?s no more appropriate to decide not to use an herb based on an article in USA Today than it is to decide you should use one.?
Though retailers can have a positive impact on consumer awareness and education, ultimately their biggest impact may be in urging consumers to learn more on their own. ?I?ve been saying for years that part of the reality of self-care, which is the context in which herbal products fit, is the responsibility for herbal self-education,? McGuffin says. ?Why are you using it? What is it for? What are the studies behind it? That?s an educational responsibility that goes along with the decision to take care of your own health.?
Mitchell Clute is a free-lance writer and musician in Crestone, Colo.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXV/number 7/p. 32, 36-37